Architect Steven Holl on Museum Design and the "Plane of the Present"

The principal architect of Steven Holl Architects, Holl has received numerous awards, including the 2012 AIA Gold Medal, and has executed an immense portfolio of built work showcasing his integration of humanist theory and functional design. He and firm senior partner Chris McVoy were recently selected to realize their scheme for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art. Kelly Chan visited Holl’s New York office to discuss the project, which is expected to open in 2015.

Kelly Chan: How did you approach the challenge of designing the Virginia Commonwealth University ICA?

Steven Holl: They asked for two galleries, around 4,000 square feet. And I thought, That’s not so interesting, two big rectangles. So we didn’t do that. I pushed that aside in my mind. What I thought was that this contemporary art museum with no collection — it’s on the threshold of what’s happening in art now. I thought of a “plane of the present,” this idea of the moment that we’re in. Everything’s either in the past or in the future, and there’s this plane of the present that keeps moving, and that’s where we are. In a few minutes, this interview will be history, and right now, you don’t know what I’m going to say next. And I was thinking, that’s a forking moment in art.

KC: Can you explain in more depth how this concept of “forking” inspired the design?

SH: I have been very involved with art since I came to New York in 1977. Today there is no dominant rhetoric, no dominant narrative. A person like Brice Marden can continue to paint, and nobody ever says, “Painting is dead. You can’t continue to paint.” And equally, a condition of sculpture goes on by itself, and performance art is going on in its parallel moment. So there’s this situation where art doesn’t have a grand narrative, what I call “forking time.” And that’s not pluralism. That was the main thing that I wanted to say with this building: That’s not pluralism. Somebody could say, “Oh, anything goes. It’s a pluralistic moment.” And I say absolutely not. Because there’s depth and conviction along any one of these trajectories. So what we did was, instead of doing two rectangular galleries, we did four galleries: Three split off in a forking way, and the fourth one goes up, the vertical gallery. When I first presented the scheme, I described it as four galleries, and you can either curate them as one retrospective in four parts, or you can have four separate shows, or you can have an end-of-the-year show for students of ?VCU.

KC: You make a lot of metaphorical references to time. How do these ideas translate spatially?

SH: My thing is that I believe I need an idea to drive the design. I call that a heuristic device. No one else needs to know about it. Because what the curators see are four galleries that they can use either all together or to have four different shows going on at once. They’re simple galleries, very orthogonal. It’s like Wittgenstein said: Ideas are like the ladder going somewhere, and when you’re there, you kick it away. It doesn’t matter. It’s gone. The idea is just what got you there.

KC: So there is no big message about art that you hope the building communicates?

SH: No. I have tried to create a building that has spatial energy and good, pragmatic space for art. I think there are three different ways that you can think about making places for art. One is to hire an expressionistic architect who can just make a completely crazy thing, but the problem is that it overshadows the art. That’s not my direction. Another way is to make white, neutral boxes like the Museum of Modern Art that just suck the life out of art. You get lost walking around in those boxes. They can actually drain the energy. And the third way is that there’s a neutrality to the spaces for art, but the building itself brings you through. There’s a kind of respect for art, but also a spatial energy that engages the user. What’s necessary is that the VCU museum really work as a space. When you get into the galleries, the architecture should not overpower the art.

KC: It’s nice to hear that one doesn’t need to know the theory behind the design in order to understand the architecture.

SH: I think the real measure of architecture is when someone walks in it and moves around in it—it’s like a piece of music; there is a sense that it engages you. A five-year-old could get engaged by a piece of music or architecture. And that’s the real measure: the light, the material, the acoustics, the smell, the shape of the space, how you move through. It isn’t just space — it’s the movement through that’s most important. So that’s the way you experience architecture. That means you can’t look at it in a magazine; you won’t really know what it is. You have to feel it.

To see images of Steven Holl's work, click on the slideshow.

This article appears in the January issue of Modern Painters.